Belgrade this week was gearing up for the dubious honour of hosting the Eurovision Song contest in a fortnight’s time. If ever there was a moment for Serbian opponents of all-singing, all-dancing European integration to make their point, this was surely it.
All polls in the run-up to Sunday’s parliamentary elections had suggested that it was the hardline nationalists who had been making headway, fuelled by resentment towards the west over Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Liberal opinion formers here talked with trepidation of a return to the bleak isolation of the 1990s and the dangers of their country sliding towards Belarus-style authoritarianism.
Instead, Serbs woke up on Monday to a bright new European dawn that few had dared to believe their troubled country – for so long an international pariah – would ever see. Victory for the Democratic Party, claiming 39 per cent of the vote, marked a clear endorsement for the pro-western vision of Serbian president Boris Tadic, who had spearheaded the party’s campaign.
“This is a great day for Serbia,” said Tadic as fireworks lit up the skies over Belgrade on Sunday night. “Serbia will be in the European Union. We have promised that and we will fulfil that.”
Having believed that anger over Kosovo would give them the leverage they needed to win power, leaders of Serbia’s Radical Party were left grasping at straws, claiming they still had the numbers to form a coalition with Kostunica and Serbian socialists.
In truth, Sunday’s vote reflected a public backlash against the muscular politics of the past, with one analyst describing the nationalists’ defeat as the “political death of Milosevic’s Serbia”.
The Radicals – which served in government under Milosevic and whose president, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial for war crimes at the Hague – had placed xenophobia at the heart of their campaign, telling villagers that the EU would ban them from keeping chickens and pigs in their gardens and forbid them from brewing slivovica, the home-distilled plum brandy of dizzying alcoholic content that is a Serbian national passion.
“The nationalists are stuck in the past,” Ljuban Panic, a 23-year-old student from Novi Sad told me. “They believe in fear. They want to build walls. We want to knock them down.”
Vojislav Kostunica, the former prime minister whose withdrawal from the ruling coalition triggered early elections, also appears to have emerged utterly discredited from a process in which he had planned to play the role of kingmaker.
A key player in the uprising that overthrew Milosevic in 2000, Kostunica has drifted since towards nationalist extremism and his campaign had been punctuated by provocative rhetoric, frequently calling Tadic a “traitor” and describing the idea of Serbia without Kosovo as “a caravan of Gypsies”.
Ultimately, Kostunica and the Radicals staked all on their belief that Serbs’ sense of injustice over Kosovo was so strong that they were ready to sacrifice the prosperity and optimism of the post-Milosevic era to fight for the territory at all costs.
The EU can claim at least some part in helping Serbs reject that scenario. By rushing through the signing of a pre-membership deal – overcoming objections from Belgium and the Netherlands over Serbia’s continuing failure to deliver war crimes suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to face justice – and measures to liberalise the visa regime for Serbian citizens, Brussels gave Tadic the ammunition he needed to keep the nationalists at bay.
Yet, having watched Yugoslavia unravel around them and with little appetite for another round of Balkan blood letting, many Serbs will privately admit as well that Kosovo is already gone. While expressing their concerns for their compatriots still living there, they accept that the territory’s status is likely to be in dispute for decades and not worth the short term gains of closer ties to Europe.
Perhaps too, Serbs have a sense of historical identity that will one day enable them to come to terms with, if never fully accept, the idea of a separate Kosovo. Standing on the banks of the wide Sava river at Sabac outside of Belgrade, on the old frontier between Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, is to be reminded that the dismemberment of Yugoslavia is merely the latest in a series of geopolitical shifts that have reconfigured this region over the centuries and left its inhabitants with an instinctive stoicism.
“Who cares?” replies a 78-year-old man, sitting on a bench in the afternoon sun with two similarly elderly companions, when I ask him if he has voted.
“We are old men. We remember everything. Communism and capitalism. Tito and Milosevic. The good times and the bad. The Germans bombed this town and so did the Americans. All I am worried about is my own funeral.”
I dare not ask him what he thinks of Eurovision.